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Book Review: The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard

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In the aftermath of the fall of Morningstar of House Silverspires, just as it was seeking to become ascendant over the other Fallen Angel led Houses, the focus turns to House Hawthorn, part architect of Morningstar’s fall. Lord Asmodeus knows that each and every position and rank is under threat, and his attempts to shore up the power of his House, and himself, will lead him to send an embassy to the Dragon Kingdom underneath the surface of the Seine. In the meantime, even as Asmodeus schemes, an alchemist and an immortal try and survive schemes within Hawthorn, the Dragon Kingdom, and across Paris itself. Two broken and desperate protagonists in a world that is equally broken, but perhaps still salvageable. And perhaps the protagonists are salvageable themselves.  

House of Binding Thorns is the second full novel by Aliette de Bodard set in her post-apocalyptic early 20th century Paris.

In every way, House of Binding Thorns is a stronger and more assured novel than its already strong predecessor, House of Shattered Wings. By this point, the author clearly has a full and broad understanding of how their world and its characters work, and the writing of her characters within the wonderfully envisioned world is assured, strong, and clear. The parallel threads through the narrative, the embassy to the Dragon Kingdom, the doings of the exiles in Paris, and the secret, subrosa threat to Asmodeus’ very authority and power all run through the novel neatly until it comes time for them to merge by the finale.

And what might I say about Lord Asmodeus himself? A distant, charismatic figure in the previous novel, the villain and antagonist of that piece, in this novel, he is the power center, the alder bole around which everyone revolves…or strives against. He comes across as just as much a treacherous, dangerous, charismatic and imposing Fallen Angel as Morningstar is, but his style, attitude, methods, goals, strengths and weaknesses are all distinctly different. He fascinated me with his small appearance in the first novel, and in the second novel, he held my attention throughout.

Our main characters, Madeline and Philippe, also holdovers from the first novel, are broken birds trying to find their way after a local catastrophe at the end of that book that upset the balance of power in fallen Paris. Their journeys in this freshly devastated landscape are painful, real, and are embedded in their character. The struggles external and internal that they face and muddle through are best enjoyed if you have read the first novel. However, the author has done an excellent job in immersing the reader into the situation so that if you haven’t read the first novel, or the associated shorter stories, you can pick up the situation as it stands in the beginning of this novel without much trouble. “There has been a recent massive power shift in this already devastated Paris that has upset the lives of the protagonists (and everyone else). Here are your characters. Go!

In addition to the strong character hand, the worldbuilding in this novel is strong and firmly assured. The author spends a lot of this effort on the beautiful complexity and splendor of the Dragon Kingdom underneath the Seine, and it is no secret to the reader that the author’s heart and attentions clearly lie with the Dragons in this fallen Paris. It’s a wonderfully described and detailed place, from its characters and power relationship, to its magic and power systems and esoteric geography. While we find out much about House Hawthorn, its deep dark secret and its power structure, and about the exiles of Paris and how they relate to the various Houses, it is the Dragon Kingdom, only touched upon in the first novel, that is the set piece wonder in this novel. I was immediately as a reader sucked into the characters, the politics and their intrigues, which made for an interesting thematic counterpoint to events up in House Hawthorn.

In addition to the two novels, including this latest, the author has a suite of short stories that take place in and around the first and second novels.  “Of Books, and Earth, and Courtship”,  “In Morningstar’s Shadow”,  “Against the Encroaching Darkness” , The Death of Aiguillon”  and “The House, in Winter” take place before House of Shattered Wings.  “Children of Thorns, Children of Water” takes place between the two novels. None of the stories are strictly necessary, in the same way that it is not strictly necessary to have read the first novel. They do, however, enrich the reading experience.

Those stories, as well as reading this latest novel, The House of Binding Thorns,  boil down to one takeaway for me as a reader. The more that de Bodard writes in the Dominion of the Fallen, the more I want to read of its characters, its worlds, its conflicts and its themes. There are plenty of lines and Houses that de Bodard could pursue in future novels, including and especially House Astragale, which seems to be to Hawthorn as Hawthorn was to Silverspires in the first book. How about it, Aliette?

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